- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA began retracting a 115-foot solar panel on the International Space Station yesterday via remote control, likening the tricky task to refolding a road map and stuffing it in the glove compartment.

The electricity-generating solar array served as a temporary power source aboard the orbiting outpost. NASA needed to move it out of the way so a new, permanent pair of solar wings could rotate in the direction of the sun.

The folding began shortly before 1:30 p.m. and was expected to take about five hours.

Flight controllers on the ground and astronauts at the space station were forced to unfold sections of the golden array they had just retracted in order to smooth out creases and counter slack in the tension.

Astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams reported that the technique worked the first time a crease appeared.

“That’s good news. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here,” Mission Control radioed back, echoing words said by a flight controller after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969.

Because it had been six years since the array was last folded, flight controllers and astronauts were not sure how easy it would be.

“It’s kind of like folding a map up,” Space Shuttle Discovery commander Mark Polansky radioed Mission Control after the crease appeared. “You start folding it and the folding goes the wrong way. … There’s nothing you can do to it other than pop it back in place or unfold it and try again.”

The astronauts and flight controllers succeeded in retracting the array more than the 40 percent needed to provide enough clearance for the rotation of a pair of giant solar wings that were delivered by Space Shuttle Atlantis in September. However, the array got stuck again when it was more than halfway folded. The old array will be moved to another spot during a later shuttle mission.

The space agency hoped to fit the old array into a 21-inch-high box. If it didn’t fold properly, NASA had the option of using spacewalkers to manually retract it at another time.

Flight controllers also watched to see whether the silicone coating on the 32,800 solar cells flaked off as the array was folded. It would look like a “small, little snowstorm” but would be no reason for concern, said Joel Montalbano, a space station flight director.

During two spacewalks today and Saturday, astronauts will rewire connectors from the old solar array to the new solar wings. Reconfiguring the power system will enable the station to provide electricity to laboratories that will be added to the structure over the next few years.

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